A heavyweight-packed organization that represents business interests in Nashville — contributing financially to Metro Council candidacies since the late 1990s — is hoping to build on its satisfaction with the course of Metro and expand the group’s influence leading up to Election Day on Aug. 4.
The Nashville Business Coalition, a political action committee that will funnel dollars to local candidates through the final days of the local campaign season, released its list of council endorsements last week, giving their pro-business nods during the tail-end of a council term that saw the city’s business establishment revel in Mayor Karl Dean’s signature project: bankrolling a new $585 million convention center.
“We’re interested in making Nashville a good place to do business,” said Dan Haskell, an attorney and a lobbyist registered on behalf of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, among other groups. “That’s what we’re about.
“No group wants to be less influential,” Haskell added. “We intend to be more active than we have in the past. We intend to be more active in terms of looking at legislation and interacting with the council on an ongoing basis in the future.”
Metro observers, as well as council members themselves, frequently note the coalition’s association with the chamber. Along with Haskell, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ralph Schulz serves on the board, while Debby Dale Mason, the chamber’s chief community action officer, serves as the coalition’s secretary. In all, seven of the 21 people who sit either on the coalition’s board or as officers have some type of chamber affiliation as either employees or board members.
“There are some chamber of commerce people involved with it, but it is not a chamber affair,” Haskell said. “It is an independent entity whose majority — even its vast majority — are not chamber employees.”
A few notable coalition board members include Tom Cigarran, chair of Healthways Inc.; Orrin Ingram, president and CEO of Ingram Industries; Bobby Joslin, founder of Joslin and Son Signs; Don Klein, CEO of the Greater Nashville Association of Realtors; and Rob McNeilly, president and CEO of the SunTrust
To no surprise, the business coalition endorsed Dean’s re-election bid, having backed him four years ago as well. Three unknown candidates are standing in the way of a second term for Dean. Since entering the mayor’s office, Dean has earned high praise from the city’s business and development communities — including the chamber. Besides their dual push for Music City Center, the mayor and chamber have walked side-by-side on the desire to redevelop the 117-acre Tennessee State Fairgrounds and to
defeat the controversial English-only referendum in 2009. The one notable split regarded Nashville’s nondiscrimination bill affecting Metro contractors, which Dean openly supported, but the chamber did not.
“I would say, generally, Nashville the last four years has pretty much made the right moves,” Schulz said, adding he sees the chamber as a member of the business coalition — and not vice versa.
“I think when you look at the mayor’s priorities of education, economic development and public safety, those match up really well with what we think are the key economic needs,” Schulz said. “Our relationship is with his agenda.”
Looking ahead to the next council, Haskell said the coalition is focused on issues “relative toward business development.” Priorities listed on the group’s website include adopting zoning and land-use policies that encourage development, looking at local and regional transit systems that serve businesses and employees, and offering incentives to attract new companies. Other goals include keeping Tennessee a right-to-work state and opposing a local minimum wage.
Given the coalition’s hope for more political say during a time when the business community already carries plenty of clout, some wonder whether neighborhood or labor interests could lose their seats at the table.
Former Councilman John Summers, who today chairs the Nashville Neighborhood Defense Fund — a PAC — said he believes more Nashvillians care about neighborhood concerns than business concerns.
“I think there’s a constant tug of war in every administration as to where they spend their funds,” Summers said, adding he believes Dean has relied more on a business model than did his predecessor, Bill Purcell. Still, Summers said he doesn’t believe neighborhood and business interests are always “diametrically opposed.”
“The business entities in Nashville have always been extremely powerful because they have the ability to channel a lot of financial support into candidates,” he said. “Whether it’s more coordinated now versus less coordinated in the past, it’s still always there.”
At-large Councilwoman Megan Barry, one of six at-large candidates to land the coalition’s endorsement, pointed out she received the group’s backing even though she spearheaded legislation that established a new living wage for Metro workers, seemingly inconsistent with the coalition’s opposition to a local minimum wage.
“I think we’ve actually done a lot of things that’s benefited neighborhoods, and we’ve also done things that they don’t normally support,” Barry said. “We got a living wage passed for Metro employees this last term. And they didn’t fight us on it. I think that’s because there is this idea that they want to work more closely and more balanced with the council.”
Haskell declined to say how much the business coalition’s PAC has raised, adding that the organization is still collecting money. He said the group plans to make some “significant contributions” this election cycle, which could add up to donations to 25 to 30 candidates.
Campaign funds raised prior to June 30 are to be disclosed to the Davidson County Election Commission by July 11. Dollars collected after June 30 would be viewable later.
The business coalition’s endorsements seem to align heavily against incumbent council members who criticized elements of Dean’s legislative agenda. The group has backed attorney Sarah Lodge Tally for West Nashville’s District 24 over Councilman Jason Holleman, a race in which Tally enjoys the support of an array of Dean’s most prominent backers. The coalition has also sided with the opponents of Antioch-area council members Duane Dominy and Robert Duvall, who were among the most critical of Dean’s handling of the fairgrounds.
“I’m a bit surprised they did not endorse me,” Duvall said. “They did before. Maybe it has to do with my position on the convention center. Maybe it has to with my position on the fairgrounds. But those are political issues to me — not business issues.”
The group opted to offer no recommendations in four district races, including the Belle Meade-area District 23, in which Councilwoman Emily Evans has no opponent. Evans was arguably Dean’s most forceful critic when it came to funding Music City Center.
“I think that clearly the convention center, notwithstanding the fact that it’s being built and the chamber got what they wanted, was clearly a litmus test for them,” Evans said of the coalition. “And that’s unfortunate, because I’m about going forward. I’m all for the convention center now that it’s being built. I’m not somebody who looks back, but apparently that’s what they do.”
Tally, facing a tough battle to unseat Holleman, said she had a great interview with the coalition, adding that Music City Center was one issue they talked about. She said she supports the center. Holleman voted against its financing. Other topics discussed, she said, included fostering more development on the Charlotte Avenue corridor, which borders her district.
“We don’t know yet financially what it will be,” Tally said of the endorsement. “They haven’t sent those checks out, but the business coalition was certainly a big endorsement for us.”
Haskell said council members’ vote on the convention center was “considered among a number of other things” for final endorsements. During conversations with candidates, he said the coalition spent considerable time discussing the future of the fairgrounds, but added the group doesn’t have a position.
He also said the future of public education played a major part of conversations with candidates. In recent years, businesses and the chamber have adopted a more hands-on approach to Metro schools. Most notably, through Metro high schools’ model of redesign, The Academies of Nashville, area companies have partnered with career-based academic tracks.
“I don’t think there’s any more important issues to business here than how public education works,” Haskell said. “It’s all about where our employees of tomorrow come from, what their abilities are. That’s not always been the number-one issues for business.”